Cool comeback kids in blue



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The Bulls have often been described as “one-dimensional” and “predictable”, even as recent as a month ago. Yet, when they go into the first ever all-South African Super rugby Final against the Sharks in Durban on Saturday they will take with them an air of unpredictability.

While the Bulls are more famous for their brutal forwards, a dependable fly-half and rock solid backline defending, it has been their ability to change the game plan – at half-time or at regular intervals in the game – that has seen them charge into the Final.

In fact the Bulls have developed this uncanny ability to ride out a storm, change course and then sail to victory.

This has been the story of their season, as well as most of their recent games.

Their season truly looked to be sliding into a mire of mediocrity after defeats against the Crusaders and Hurricanes on their Australasian tour.

After a very ordinary start to the tournament – two defeats in the first three matches, including a disappointing showing in going down to the Western Force at home in Pretoria – and then also losing those two matches on tour, the Bulls have hit a rich vein of form in the past month.

It has been their ability to change “direction” – or the game plan – so to speak, that has been central to this change in fortunes.

Even in those defeats to the Crusaders (10-32) and the Hurricanes (9-17) the Bulls started to show signs of their ability to adapt and make good on errors.

Against the Crusaders they were down 3-18 at half-time and even worse, 3-32 after 46 minutes. But they tightened up their defence – after some really shocking missed tackles – and never conceded another point.

Against the Hurricanes the Bulls were down 3-12 at the break, but again produced a better second half.

A look at the stats of their games since returning home from the five-week Australasian trip clearly illustrates this ability to adapt to the situation.

Against the Highlanders – the game that split the defeats against the Crusaders and Hurricanes – the Bulls were only leading 9-6 at the break but run out comfortable 22-13 winners – with the Highlanders scoring a late consolation try.

During their five-match run after returning from Australasia this ability to close out games in the second half was illustrated ever more emphatically.

Against the Stormers they were leading 18-7 at the break, which included a five-pointer scored in the 38th minute, and then went on to record a convincing 49-12 win.

The next week against the Lions the Bulls were leading just 10-7 at the break and ran out comfortable 31-7 victors.

In the crunch game against the Blues – probably their most crucial win of the season – they were leading 20-9 at the break, but that included a converted try (seven points), which was scored in extra time of the first half. The final score was 40-19, but the Blues’ only try was scored deep into injury time. The Bulls had scored 40 unanswered points in this game, after going behind 0-9 after eight minutes.

The next game, against the reds, were always going to be about the winning margin and a 38-3 half-time lead became a record 92-3 massacre. The Reds opened the scoring in the second minute. The winning margin is what moved the Bulls into second place.

However, the game that best depicted the Bulls’ ability to adapt was last week’s 27-12 try-less semi-final victory against the Crusaders. After 30 minutes the scores were level at 9-all. The Bulls scored two penalties just before the break and then in the second half piled on the pressure to secure a 27-12 win.

Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer revealed that his team had worked hard at being able to keep the opposition guessing, by constantly changing their tactics in the game.

This was especially true of their win over the six-time Super rugby champion Crusaders.

“We wanted to open the game up, take the game to them, but the defence was just too solid,” he said of the semi-final.

“The attack was good, but it was just that the defence was so good that we couldn’t get quick ball.

“What really made me proud of my team is that we were able to move the game plan every 10 minutes and again half-time.

“That’s the sign of a good team, that you can make adjustments in the game.

“If you are not flexible enough, you can get caught with your pants on your knees.

“We were able to make adjustments to our game plan and I’m really happy about that.”

The coach also said that while he has some means of relaying messages to his players, most of these decisions are being made by the leadership on the field – senior players like captain Victor Matfield and voice captain Fourie du Preez.

“Yes, I do get messages through, but these guys have come along with me in Super rugby and the Currie Cup competition for three years now.

“That’s the big advantage of having continuity and experienced guys that come through with you.

“It is great when the captain and vice-captain back the coach and know exactly what you want on the field. That’s where I had such a good understanding with Anton [Leonard], while Victor [Matfield] and myself also come along for a number of years now.

“Yes, I do get messages through [to the players], but they are experienced enough to know what I want.”

What was even more impressive, according to Meyer, is that his team managed to turn such a close contest – against an All-Black-laden team – into what amounted to the Crusaders’ biggest defeat of the season.

It was the only game this year in which the Crusaders lost by double figures (10 points or more).

The Crusaders suffered two nine-point defeats – against the Brumbies in Week 13 and the Blues in Week One. They also went down by six points to the Chiefs and Lions and lost by one point (an injury time conversion from Ruan Pienaar) to the Sharks.

By Jan de Koning 365 Digital

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